Free Speech Zones or Speech-Free Zones?

By on December 20, 2010

As 2010 wanes, now is the time to reflect on all of the work that FIRE has been doing this year. Among the issues we faced concerning individual rights on campus, free speech zones continue to pose a significant threat to the rights of university students.

Free speech zones are small, often remote areas of campus that the administration has set aside for student speech and expressive activity. It is ironicif not outright sadthat in the university setting historically known for encouraging free speech, speech is now being censored and quarantined in small areas of campuses. Free speech can no longer be considered "free" if it is highly restricted and subject to administrative approval before it can take place. Indeed, the Supreme Court declared many years ago in the case of Widmar v. Vincent that "the campus of a public university, at least for its students, possesses many of the characteristics of a public forum." Similarly, a federal court in Texas, in striking down a free speech zone policy at Texas Tech University in the 2004 case of Roberts v. Haragan, noted the "interest of its students, for whom the University is a community, in having adequate opportunities and venues available for free expression."

In spite of these and other legal precedents, free speech zones persist on university campuses, greatly limiting students’ expressive rights. The two most notable free speech zone cases this year involved California’s Southwestern College and Tarrant County College in Texas.

Torch readers will recall the blatant violation of free speech that took place at Southwestern College (SWC). The trouble began last fall when three professors joined a peaceful student protest addressing state budget cuts in the college’s free speech zonea tiny free speech "patio." When the group decided that they would move towards former President Raj K. Chopra’s office for better exposure, they were stopped by a group of police officers. Upon being informed that their protest would not be allowed to proceed, the students and professors complied and left the area. That evening, three faculty members were given notice that they were banned from campus immediately. Thanks to FIRE’s intervention, the campus ban on the professors was lifted two weeks later.

FIRE has been trying ever since to get SWC to rescind its unconstitutional and absurd "free speech patio" policy, so that the campus may be opened up to free speech activity. We have written them several times this year to no avail. However, in a promising turn of events, Chopra abruptly resigned on November 30. With the resignation of Chopra, FIRE hopes that SWC will finally get rid of its restrictive free speech zone.

Torch readers will also recall that Tarrant County College (TCC) prohibited students from wearing empty holsters on campus to protest policies that forbade those with concealed carry licenses from being able to carry concealed handguns on campus. Additionally, TCC told students that they were only allowed to protest the policy (without holsters) inside the college’s 113 square foot free speech zone! Fortunately, FIRE once again defeated this attempt at censorship, partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and attorney Karin Cagle to win a lawsuit that forced TCC not only to allow students to protest with empty holsters on campus, but also to dissolve the restrictive free speech zone policy used to limit student rights on campus.

TCC is not the only institution where FIRE’s efforts have led to the dissolution of a free speech zone. For example, Valdosta State University (VSU) was once home to a grossly unconstitutional free speech zone that restricted free speech to one small stage for the entire 168 acre campus! To make matters worse, students were only permitted to use the small stage for two, non-consecutive hours a day, and only on weekdays. Despite pressure from FIRE, including letters, a short video and an ad announcing VSU’s Red Alert status in U.S. News & World Report‘s "America’s Best Colleges" issue, President Ronald Zaccari maintained the restrictive measures. It wasn’t until the new leadership of Patrick J. Schloss that VSU finally did away with its free speech zone and found its way off of our Red Alert list.

Unfortunately, despite FIRE’s fervent efforts to restore liberty to our nation’s campuses, free speech zones continue to restrict student freedoms. For example, at the University of Cincinnati (UC), the administration not only confines free speech to one area on campus, it also requires that students wishing to use the area formally schedule their event through the Campus Scheduling Office. UC goes even further, saying that students violating these policies will be criminally charged with trespassing! Front Range Community College also maintains a free speech zone that requires prior application for its use. McNeese State University boasts one of the most restrictive free speech zone policies, limiting free speech activities to two areas on campus. Florida’s Seminole Community College joins the ranks with its own small and poorly defined free speech zone. At Berkeley City College, students are required to reserve their free speech zone, a student lounge, three business days in advance. Even then, administrators prohibit the mere use of profanity, as well as amplification for any activity occurring in that space. Students are also subject to a free speech zone at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Free speech zones continue to threaten students’ rights on campuses across the country, but FIRE is as dedicated as ever to combating them. With every victory over a restrictive free speech zone, FIRE upholds its mission to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. It also sends a strong message to colleges that these blatant abuses of students’ free speech rights will not be tolerated. Though 2010 is ending, FIRE’s battle against free speech zones will continue in the coming year with the same diligence and vigor that it always has.

Christe Thompson is a student at Drexel University and works for FIRE as part of Drexel’s co-op program.